Appellate Judge Dave Ryan is wasted, and he can't find his way home.
"Blind Faith was either one of the great successes of the late '60s, a culmination of the decade's efforts by three legendary musicians—or it was a disaster of monumental proportions, and a symbol of everything that had gone wrong with the business of rock at the close of the decade. In actual fact, Blind Faith was probably both."
-- Rock critic Bruce Eder, writing for the All Music Database (www.allmusic.com)
Normally I don't like to crib someone else's words and put them into a review verbatim, but Bruce Eder's two-sentence summary of Blind Faith, the first true "supergroup," is just too on point to pass up. Their entire existence spanned barely seven months and only one six-song album, yet they still managed to make an indelible mark on rock history.
The debut of Blind Faith, at a free June 1969 concert in London's Hyde Park, was filmed. The planned concert film and live album, however, never materialized due to the band's quick disintegration. Today, a mere 37 years later, Sanctuary Records has released the full concert (all 50 minutes of it) on DVD for the world to see. Stripped of all the history, and of the weight of the expectations people had of these music legends, Blind Faith: London Hyde Park 1969 can finally be seen for what it is: a glimpse of stillborn genius.
Facts of the Case
Blind Faith is generally regarded as the first rock "supergroup," a term generally defined to be a group consisting of already-established superstars from other groups—other examples include Asia, the Power Station, and the Firm. The group was born in 1969, in the wake of two messy band divorces.
Eric Clapton, the superstar English guitarist, had finally tired of the constant bickering between his Cream bandmates, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. He also felt that Cream's record label and manager (rock impresario Robert Stigwood) were unwilling to let Cream's sound deviate from the hard-blues jamming sound of Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire. To Clapton, a devoted follower of the Delta and Memphis blues traditions, Cream had become just too unsubtle. So despite the fact that Cream was one of the biggest acts in the world at the time—achieving almost as much fame as their countrymates the Beatles and Rolling Stones—Clapton, Baker, and Bruce broke the band up in late 1968.
Meanwhile, musical prodigy Steve Winwood was also sparring with his bandmates. Winwood, who had a shockingly powerful and unique voice, and who also played a killer blues organ, had broken into the musical spotlight at the tender age of 15 with the Spencer Davis Group—a band he had formed with his older brother Muff, a bassist, and guitarist Davis in 1963. The Spencer Davis Group put out some of the tightest R&B singles of the '60s—tunes like "I'm A Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'" are still considered classics. However, Winwood's roots were actually in jazz, courtesy of his jazz musician father. He left the Spencer Davis Group in the mid-'60s, forming a new group—Traffic—in 1967 with Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, and Chris Wood, all highly regarded session musicians who had played with the Spencer Davis Group. Traffic's sound was markedly different—Winwood and Mason, who did the majority of the songwriting, combined pop, jazz, psychedelia, folk, and progressive rock into an oft-cited but rarely duplicated unique new sound. Traffic, like Cream, became a "jam band"—three minute singles often turned into fourteen-minute epics when performed live. However, Mason and Winwood had very different ideas of how Traffic's sound should evolve. Winwood wanted to go deeper in the jazz direction, while Mason was more pop-oriented. So, in late 1968, Winwood broke up Traffic. (But, as it turned out, not for long.)
Clapton and Winwood were good friends, and began jamming together in early 1969. They enjoyed playing with each other, and started to consider forming a new trio by bringing in a drummer. Winwood was strongly in favor of adding Ginger Baker, Clapton's old Cream-mate, who had jammed with them and who was very interested in joining any band they might form. Clapton, although he liked Baker and appreciated his musicianship, was more ambivalent about his participation. Depending on who you listen to, Clapton had either promised Jack Bruce that he would work with him on his next project, or had promised him that he wouldn't work with Baker outside of a Cream reunion. Also, he knew that being linked with Baker again would inevitably generate "new Cream" or "super Cream" talk around the new band. Winwood won the day, however—Baker's deep and extensive background in both jazz and blues drumming, and the fact that he was a "known quantity" to both, was just too much to pass up.
Word of the impending Clapton/Winwood/Baker collaboration leaked out, and—just as Clapton had feared—generated a firestorm of "new Cream" expectations. At this point, Blind Faith (named by Clapton in a bit of cynical punmanship), even though it technically hadn't been formed yet, was absolutely going to happen. There was too much money to be made for it not to happen. Promoters were chomping at the bit to get in on what would be a gigantic moneymaker of a tour. Atlantic Records (in the process of being sold to Warner-Seven Arts) wanted a cash cow to replace the lost Cream income. (Ironically, they already had that replacement under contract, in the form of a little-known English power blues band named Led Zeppelin.) Clapton, Winwood, and Baker hit the studio in February of 1969 to start working out songs for a potential album. Clapton said it was a solo album, but nobody believed him.
As the album rounded into shape, Rick Grech, of the lesser-known prog rock band Family, was brought in to play bass and turn Blind Faith into a touring band. Only five days after finishing the recording sessions for the album (which would also be titled Blind Faith), the ill-rehearsed Blind Faith was playing in front of 100,000 people in Hyde Park.
In a rough, loose, barely-50-minute set, Blind Faith jammed through literally every song in their repertoire, plus a pair of cover songs, all of which are featured on this disc:
• "Well All Right" (a cover of a Buddy Holly song)
Eric Clapton hated this show. He thought the band was under-rehearsed, sloppy, and performing well under his expectations. More importantly, he realized that the band also wasn't ready to tour because they simply didn't have enough material to tour with. They barely had enough material for the album—Blind Faith is a mere six songs long, one of which has about ten minutes of Ginger Baker drum solos. Yet here they were, pushed out onto the Hyde Park stage to satisfy a public (and a record company) increasingly hungry for more Clapton and more Cream. It was, in many ways, Clapton's worst fear come true: the expectations of Blind Faith put him under even more pressure than Cream had. You can see it in his body language on stage, and in the lack of any joy or elation he seems to have playing with the band. He stands almost offstage, hidden behind Baker's drum kit, letting Winwood and Grech be the foci of attention. His playing is, as usual, technically brilliant, but without much of the verve and spirit of Clapton's best playing (which still lay in his future at this point).
I'm certainly not going to second-guess Eric Clapton on a musical issue—but Blind Faith wasn't that bad. Yes, this is a rough and raw concert that is far too short. It's the length of an opening act, not a main event. But these are incredible musicians. Their crap still smells like roses. And oh what potential was here. Take, for example, "Can't Find My Way Home," one of Blind Faith's enduring contribution to the rock & roll canon. This is, bear in mind, the first time the song was ever played live. Yet it's already been altered from the folk-tinged album version, brought uptempo and turned into more of a gospel rave. Clapton fires off a brilliant Telecaster solo, understated yet perfect. The band lets the song breathe more than they do on the tight album track, giving it a new and fresh sound to contemporary listeners, who have heard nothing but the original version for 35 years. (Unless you've heard the showstopping versions done by both Clapton and Winwood in their solo shows, of course.) How many ways could this group of musicians reinvented this song had they been given proper rehearsal time; enough time to truly come together as a band, not just collection of outstanding musicians?
Since this concert was professionally filmed (and not just bootlegged), the picture and sound quality of this disc are well above average compared to what one would expect from typical late-'60s concert footage. But that's not saying it's perfect. The show appears to have been shot on 16mm film, but that's just a complete guess on my part. The result is a somewhat grainy picture (especially when viewed on a good television), with muted colors that seem a bit too pastel-ish. In fact, it almost looks as if the film is a colorized black-and-white piece. I don't think that's the case—I think it's just an artifact of the color process used to develop the film. It doesn't detract from the overall experience, but I found it noticeable. The sound quality is much better than I would have expected. A well-balanced stereo track (presumably taken from the sound board) keeps all the instruments separate and distinct, although Winwood's vocals tend to be slightly underdriven. Many concert recordings from this era are muddied and muffled, so it's exciting to find that this concert has been recorded in near album-level fidelity. (A small technical note: this is a region-free disc, too.)
The extras on the disc are enjoyable and appreciated, even though there aren't that many of them. The main concert feature is preceded by a ten-minute documentary piece that establishes the history of the band, and puts their formation into its proper music history context. (The DVD doesn't offer an option to play the full concert sans the intro, which is a negative, but that's easily fixed by simply selecting the first song from the scene selections menu. The concert will play out in full from that point.) Three promotional films (the precursors to music videos) are provided as extras: "I'm A Man" by the Spencer Davis Group, "Hole In My Shoe" by Traffic, and "I'm So Glad" by Cream. Bear in mind that these are from the psychedelia era: viewing may result in seizures. A photo gallery of stills from the concert and Blind Faith's recording sessions is presented as a slide show, set to the band's version of "Well All Right." Finally, the disc has a pre-Blind Faith discography for each of the band members, and a chart showing the "roots" of the band (i.e. the bands each member played with prior to Blind Faith), which is also provided on the flip side of the disc's mini-poster insert.
Clapton's misgivings about the band were soon proven correct. After an uneventful mini-tour in northern Europe, the band crossed the pond to play a huge, sold-out gig at Madison Square Garden in New York, the first stop on an extensive US tour. The concert was marred by a near-riot. Things didn't get much better from there. Despite their touring, the band never really came together musically. The lack of new material meant that the band had to rely on covers of Cream and Traffic songs to pad out their shows. The fans couldn't have cared less—in fact, the Cream and Traffic songs were all they really wanted to hear. This depressed Clapton, who valued originality and musicianship over fame and screaming, mindless fans.
As the tour dragged on, Clapton started to distance himself from Blind Faith. He spent less time with Winwood and Baker, and more time with the band's opening act, Delaney and Bonnie—a husband-and-wife team who led a genre-busting folk/rock/country/blues outfit. After the tour was over, Clapton broke up Blind Faith, announcing that there would be no second album. He took a position as a band member in Delaney and Bonnie's band, where he could just play the blues without the pressures of superstardom. Winwood, Grech, and Baker briefly carried on without him as Ginger Baker's Airforce, recording one album together. It had been agreed that Winwood and Grech would only stay on for the one album, after which the Airforce would carry on as, essentially, Baker's solo vehicle. Winwood, ironically, would promptly reform Traffic with Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood, launching the band's most productive and artistically successful period with John Barleycorn Must Die and classic songs like "Glad," "Empty Pages," and "Freedom Rider." (Grech would later join Traffic as well, first as part of their touring band, then as a full-fledged band member.)
Clapton enjoyed playing with D&B. He also briefly sat in with John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band when D&B toured with them. A year later, after his stint with the band, he even jumped back into the "supergroup" arena. This time, however, he did it his way: the band was low key; the participants were included solely because of musicianship, not pre-existing fame; there were no rushed, pre-arranged massive US tours to worry about; and the band played and rehearsed together until they had a full double-album's worth of material under their belts. To form the group, he skimmed the cream (no pun intended) of the Delaney & Bonnie sidemen—keyboard player Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle, and drummer Jim Gordon. After playing and touring together for a spell, Clapton invited a little-known, fiery young slide guitarist from Georgia, Duane Allman, to sit in with them on the sessions for their first album. The band was Derek & the Dominos; the album was Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs; the rest is history. I'm Paul Harvey. Sadly, Derek & the Dominos' true potential, so spectacularly demonstrated on their lone album, would also go unfulfilled, thanks to Clapton's troubled personal life and raging heroin addiction, and Allman's death in a motorcycle accident in 1971.
Derek & the Dominos was arguably what Clapton hoped Blind Faith could have been. This disc shows Blind Faith as they actually were. But what if? What if Clapton and Winwood had found common musical ground and stuck it out through the crushing pressure of expectations? Admittedly, the stark contrast between the jazz-folk of John Barleycorn Must Die and the hard, gritty traditional blues of Derek & the Dominoes leads to the belief that such common ground never really existed between the two…but what if? For sure, Atlantic records would have been the dominant blues label of the 1970s. On one side, Winwood and Clapton would have taken traditional blues into new jazz and folk influenced areas with Blind Faith; meanwhile, Led Zeppelin would be taking traditional blues into new, harder areas as the progenitors of hard rock and heavy metal. But it was not to be.
Instead, Blind Faith was a seven-month trip through lost opportunity and unfulfilled expectations. This concert, probably their high water mark, is a key moment in rock history. Thankfully, Blind Faith: London Hyde Park 1969 is a solid and worthwhile, albeit short, preservation of that concert. True rock fans should seriously consider adding it to their collection, if only for its historical significance.
Clapton is God. Not guilty.
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